Secular Meditation: Listening to Silence

There’s this meditation technique I’ve been using. It’s a little hard to talk about: not in the “painful or upsetting” sense of “hard to talk about,” but in the “literally difficult to find words” sense. But I’ve been finding it very valuable, so I thought I’d share with the rest of the class.

I’ve been calling it “listening to silence.” (Not a hugely original concept, I’m aware…)

When I was at a daylong meditation retreat thing a few months ago, one of the “bringing our awareness into the present moment” techniques our teacher had us do was to listen: to be aware of the sounds around us, and to let our awareness change as the sounds changed. A couple/ few minutes into the session, the background noise of a heater in the room shut off… and the room was suddenly very, very quiet. I hadn’t even been aware of the sound of the heater until it stopped, but once it did, the absence of that sound was palpable. No heater, no traffic, no music or conversation drifting up from the street. Just… silence.

And I sat there, listening to it.

And ever since, I’ve been doing this on a semi-regular basis.

Here’s the thing. Most of the meditation techniques I use are fairly inward-focused: focusing my awareness on my breath, my body, my thoughts, my emotions and mood. But there are times when this doesn’t work very well. The chatterbox in my head is always somewhat hard to quiet, but sometimes it’s especially persistent — and when I’m doing an inwardly-focused meditation, my awareness tends to be drawn into the chatterbox even more than usual. The jump from “breath” or “body” or “mood” over to “whatever plans and fantasies and memories and anxieties and ideas for blog posts and opinions about TV shows my brain is churning out this second” is a pretty small one. It’s all stuff that’s going on inside the fairly small confines of my own skin, and my awareness is easily seduced from one to the other.

But when I focus on something external, like sounds, that jump is a bit bigger. It’s a bit easier to stay focused on whatever I’m focusing on, and I can do it for a bit longer, and it’s a bit easier to notice when I’ve become distracted and to pull my focus back. Of course I still get distracted, of course my awareness still gets sucked into the chatterbox — but when my focus is outside my self instead of inside it, the gravitational pull of the chatterbox is a little less powerful.

And when the room is really, really quiet… here’s where it gets hard to talk about. I mean, what is there to say about nothing? How can nothing be a thing to pay attention to? And yet, it is. When I draw my focus away from “chatterbox on autoplay” and listen to what’s around me, and I hear nothing, and I keep listening… the calming effect on my brain and my mood is powerful. It quiets the chatterbox like just about nothing else. It is an odd thing, though: secular meditation is very much about fully experiencing the present moment (for me, anyway, and for lots of other people practicing it), and there’s an odd paradox when the thing in the present moment that I’m experiencing is, literally, nothing. (A friend of mine who’s a secular Buddhist sometimes talks about “the union of emptiness and clarity,” and maybe that’s what this is about: a clearer perception and experience of nothingness?)

Of course, silence is almost never actually silent. I don’t meditate in a soundproof booth (although that might be interesting to try sometime). Of course sounds drift into the soundscape: the fridge turning on, a truck going by, a neighbor coming down the back stairs, Talisker making those mysterious yowling noises that sound like she’s being strangled but that really just mean she has a toy in her mouth and is parading it around the house. These sounds get folded into the meditation: I notice them, notice them pass, listen to the silence again. It’s something of a pleasure, actually: really listening to these sounds instead of having them be part of the backdrop. It’s like an experimental music composition or something, where ordinary sounds get turned into music simply by putting them in a particular order, or even simply by drawing attention to them. Concerto #4 with Distant Truck.

Even when the room is very quiet indeed, even when there’s no fridge or truck or neighbor or yowling cat, the silence is still rarely silent. When I listen closely to the silence, there are small sounds deep inside it: the house settling, leaves rustling in a slight breeze, my own stomach rumbling. I just have to listen really deeply: let my focus really sink into the silence, and hear the tiny sounds embedded in it. Which, of course, is much of the point of the whole exercise: that deep, conscious focus on the here and now.

And of course, silence itself can also have that quality of an experimental composition: the quality of music being created, not out of instruments or vocal cords or amplifiers, but out of attention. John Cage’s “4 Minutes and 33 Seconds,” and all.

Not sure where I’m going with this. Not sure if I’m going anywhere. Which I suppose is somewhat appropriate for writing about meditation and mindfulness and being in the present moment. I’m trying to come up with one of my trademark punchy conclusions, but it’s not coming, so I think I’m going to let that go and just let this trail off. Into, you know… silence.

Secular Meditation: Listening to Silence

10 thoughts on “Secular Meditation: Listening to Silence

  1. 1

    Have you tried a floatation/sensory deprivation tank? Close to soundproof, temperature controlled, dark and close to feeling weightless. Most relaxing solo drug free thing I’ve ever done.

  2. 2

    Have you tried a floatation/sensory deprivation tank?

    Tony Burns @ #1: I have, but many many years ago. That’s not a bad idea: if I can find one around here, I might try that and see what it’s like.

  3. Lea

    That’s the kind of meditation I do when it’s too noisy to concentrate on the intended object. I switch to the noise as the meditation object.

    As for emptiness, usually in Buddhism “emptiness” refers to the fact that nothing has any inherent existence in and of itself. A “thing”, for example a car or a chair or a living being, is actually nothing more than a collection of other things — it is “empty” of a self (anatta).

  4. 4

    That’s the kind of meditation I do when it’s too noisy to concentrate on the intended object. I switch to the noise as the meditation object.

    Lea @ #3: Oooo, that’s a really interesting idea. I tend to do the opposite: I do “listening” meditations when it’s relatively quiet and I know it’s likely to be quiet for a while. But that’s an interesting idea: doing a “listening” meditation when there are sounds to be heard and focused on. I already do that with “emotion and mood” meditations and “thoughts” meditations: when my emotions are strong and/or all over the map, and are going to suck my attention no matter what, I let myself have them and make them the target of the meditation. Ditto when my thoughts are racing extra-fast. I’ll have to try doing that with sound. Thanks!

  5. 6

    I recently meditated in — literally — a mausoleum. Underground, walled with marble slabs. The silence was…extraordinary. It is beneath that big cathedral on Lake Merritt and because it was the evening, no one else was there, so once we started meditating, literally the only sound was our breathing.

    I have also meditated on BART, focusing on the rising and falling tones of the loud whine. Pretty much the opposite, but also interesting.

  6. 7

    I like meditating, and I like, uhh, weird music. A good portion of the music I’ve been listening to is great for this kind of meditation, in particular Michael Pisaro’s work, which is often mostly silent with a few sounds placed within the space. Sometimes the sounds are interesting (close-mic’d tam tam ), sometimes they’re a little unpleasant (high pitched sinewaves), and rarely they’re pretty. Sounds of discernable pitch (e.g. those made by traditional instruments) are occasionally used.

    One of the prettier examples would be Mind is Moving by Michael Pisaro, , which is a series of compositions for solo acoustic guitar. Or July Mountain. Here are some examples you can listen to for free:!/album/Harmony+Series+11+16/8070179

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